Sunday, November 15, 2009

Less Than Zero

Sermon preached November 8, 2009

Texts: Mark 12:38-44

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?

Emily Dickinson (288)

Ever have a day when those words from Emily Dickinson seemed just right? Or maybe you’ve had a Macbeth day (V,v, 17 – Bartlett’s, p. 240)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Maybe you’ve experienced some of these things.

Ever feel like the soundtrack to your life is Elvis Costello’s “Less Than Zero”?
Then I have a story for you, Mark chapter 12, verses 38-44. Now it doesn’t start out very promising, in fact, Jesus seems in a bit of a funk. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Pretty direct, and pretty harsh.
Then there is a shift. Jesus watches the crowd for awhile, watches as wealthy people put money into the Temple treasury, and a particular woman catches his attention – a poor widow. This woman places two small copper coins in the treasury, worth hardly a penny, and Jesus says “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” Jesus just flunked accounting 101! Yet he explains that others have given out of their abundance but she has given all.
There are a number of themes that could be pursued from this last story. The woman is a model of Christian discipleship – she gives her whole being in contrast to the scribes whose religious practice seems all on the surface. The entire passage presents a critique of a religious system that perpetuates a division between wealth and poverty, that, in fact, devours widows. I will touch on that a bit more later, but my focus is different today.
I want to pay attention to the way Jesus pays attention in this passage. When I do that I see a Jesus who is willing to pay attention to a person no one else is interested in – a poor widow with few earthly resources, a woman on the margins. One of the messages I get from that kind of attending is this - You matter.
You matter. On those days when life threatens to overwhelm you, when change throws projectiles your way, when the endings all seem bad, when failure is your constant companion and you feel like your life is little more than a warning to others – those less than zero days – you matter. The deeper truth about your life is that it is not a tale told by an idiot, but that your life is a precious gift from God. You matter to God. Life will have its ups and downs, its heartaches, its failures, its changes that don’t improve things, its bad endings, but your life is not less than zero. You matter. You are loved. This is sheer good news which you are invited to receive with gratitude.
Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody… Are you Nobody too” ends rather delightfully. Seeming nobodys connect with each other and find quiet friendship and fellowship. They even celebrate their quiet lives.
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The poem invites a celebration of who we are, and so, too, does the gospel story about the widow.
You matter – that is good news which you are invited to receive with gratitude and delight. It is also an invitation to live differently.
You matter in the life of this church. One of the dangers of having one worship service is that when we get 200+ people here, it becomes easier for any one of us to think that we don’t matter much on Sunday morning. Let me tell you, you do! Every person who comes matters to the quality and character of our worship. Every note sung adds to the chorus of praise offered here. Every kind greeting offered raises the friendliness temperature of the church. When you are not here, and I understand that all of us have reasons for not being here from time to time, but when you are not here, someone might look for a friendly face in the spot where you would have been and find it empty instead, and that will leave them feeling a little emptier.
You matter in the life of this church beyond worship. Without your energy, ideas, time we are less than what we can be. Without your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, your witness we are not all we can be. There is nothing insignificant about your participation in the life and ministry of this church. You matter.
You matter, as well to the well-being of the world God loves. Your small acts of kindness and conscience matter in our world. Jesus act of paying attention to scribes and then to a widow seems pretty small, but as the story gets told a system that devoured widows when it was supposed to protect them, gets revealed, and there is hope for change. Caring for widows was supposed to be a hallmark of the Jewish faith of Jesus time. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells of a God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers.” The prophet Isaiah called out to the people (1:17): “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” But that wasn’t happening. Jesus contrasting the scribes and the widow reminded the people of who they were to be, and it mattered. Your acts of compassion and kindness and conscience matter, too – caring for the hungry and the marginalized, calling attention to systems that still create great wealth and excruciating poverty in our world, asking how our economic arrangements are affecting the earth – all that matters. You matter.

Tikkun Deborah Cooper (a Duluth poet)
The man with the overloaded grocery cart
insists I go ahead of him.
Did he see me looking at my watch?
Even though I am running late
I take the time to help the bent woman wrestle a bag of dog food to her trunk.
Arriving home, the bent woman calls her daughter on the phone,
as if they’d spoken only yesterday, never mentioning the rift.
The daughter’s husband walks through the door
into an embrace.
Later, unasked, he cuts the grass of the widow down the street.
From the window, she waves, feels brave enough now
to sort through Frank’s things…pick out a keepsake for each grandchild.
Three states to the east, the gay grandson, once estranged,
opens the package, unrolls the bubble wrap…
carefully hangs the mirror on the wall.
Stones they had collected from that rocky shore
when he was small, set in the frame by his grandfather’s steady hand.
That night, he writes a letter.
Light repeats itself… a subtle yielding here and there, an outstretched hand.

You matter. Hear the good news again. Live the good news always. Extend an outstretched hand. Amen.

No comments: